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Heads must roll
Posted by on Sunday, May 11, 2003 at 2:30 am

The Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times is absolutely incredible. I can’t even begin to describe it properly in this space; really, you’ve got to read the whole article about it, even if that does take 45 minutes. They will be 45 minutes well spent, as this is without question the journalistic scandal of the (admittedly young) century. Check out Andrew Sullivan’s excellent observations, too. But here is the gist, very briefly:

A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.

The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.

That’s only the beginning. It gets even worse when you read the details, and the even more detailed details. Seriously.

Heads must roll for this. I don’t mean Blair’s; he’s already gone, having resigned earlier this month after being caught for committing plagiarism in an article late last month (just the tip of an enormous iceberg, as it turns out). No, I mean Blair’s editors. Some of their heads must roll, too.

You see, some editors saw this coming. Some of those editors told their superiors. Some of those superiors didn’t listen. Others listened selectively. Bad decisions were made, inexcusably bad and stupid decisions. Lots of them. It’s a long story, and like I keep saying, you’ve got to read the whole thing to even begin to grasp it. But the point is, the whole communication system within the New York Times newsroom suffered a complete and utter breakdown.

This is a systematic, newspaper-wide failure. Jayson Blair is the perpetrator, yes, but it is utterly unacceptable that he was not stopped earlier. As 9/11 was to the intelligence community, as the Catholic priest sex scandal was to the church hierarchy, so is the Jayson Blair debacle to the New York Times editorial staff. And because, despite my recent rightward leanings, I still have a good deal of respect and admiration for the Times, it bothers me. A lot.

I am not one to say “heads must roll” at the drop of a hat. Indeed, I am generally averse to that phrase, and the sentiment that usually lies behind it. Part of this aversion stems from my dad’s frequent, and quite correct, criticism that Americans too often believe we can create perfection on earth, as evidenced by the empty promises such as “let us make sure this never happens again” that tend to follow any sort of disaster. Perfection on earth is impossible; human beings are imperfect, and we should not lash out at them for forgivable imperfections, even if those imperfections cause us great anguish.

Moreover, I am particularly averse to the phrase “heads must roll” as applied to newspaper editors, for personal reasons. My head rolled once — over a “mistake” at the Daily Trojan that I believe really wasn’t a mistake at all, but regardless of that — I was asked to resign an editorial position because my superiors believed heads had to roll, and mine was the one on the chopping block. So I know “heads must roll” is a sentiment that can be, and often is, abused. But I still think, in this case, that heads must roll.

Sometimes, the very fact of a preventable, catastrophic disaster is enough that the people who could have prevented it, who should have prevented it, whose very job description includes preventing it, can no longer be trusted to do their jobs properly. In cases like this, even if you feel bad for those people, even if they have halfway valid excuses (and I’m not sure some Times editors have even that), you still have to get rid of them. Not end their careers, not tarnish them forever, but fire them. Let them find a new job. Or, at the very least, give them the option of either resignation or demotion. If only as a cautionary tale, these people cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

That would include Howell Raines, the executive editor of the Times. He is ultimately responsible for the whole paper, and the paper has suffered a catastrophic failure here. If a corporation’s earnings plummet, its CEO is fired; if a government agency suffers a major scandal, its secretary is sacked; and so should Howell Raines be replaced. (Indeed, if an equivalent scandal happened at any government agency — something going straight to the core of the agency’s mission, as this goes straight to the Times’s core mission of reporting the truth — I suspect the Times editorial board would be clamoring for the removal of the agency’s head. The same should apply here.)

Arthur Sulzberger, the ball is in your court. Demote Raines, or let him find work elsewhere. But he has no place as the leader of the New York Times. Not now, not after this.

Unfortunately, I fear that heads as big as Raines’s will not roll. The Times article includes this passage:

But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” he said. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Yes, the person who did this is Jayson Blair. But the people who allowed it to happen are Howell Raines and a host of others. Unfortunately, if Sulzberger’s attitude doesn’t change, they will not suffer for their crimes of negligence. Instead, it will be the Jenny Medinas of the world who will suffer. Young reporters, former interns, etc. — like Medina, the former Daily Trojan editor who interned last summer for the Times and, last I heard, was still writing for them — will now be under incredible scrutiny, and I fear it will be increasingly difficult to get promoted from the bottom up.

That’s unfortunate, but ultimately, understandable and even fair. What isn’t fair is if the higher-ups get off scot free, and only the lower-level staffers suffer. It’s not a matter of finding “scapegoats.” It’s a matter of holding the responsible people responsible.

I hope I get lots of comments on this, because I know I’m being very harsh, and I’d love to hear outside opinions about whether that harshness translates into unfairness. I don’t think it does, but I’m not unwilling to be swayed by a good argument.

I should say that the Times should be greatly credited for reporting on this so openly and in such great detail, and putting it in the Sunday paper, no less. I also appreciate the apology:

For all of the falsifications and plagiarism, The Times apologizes to its readers in the first instance, and to those who have figured in improper coverage. It apologizes, too, to those whose work was purloined and to all conscientious journalists whose professional trust has been betrayed by this episode.

Thanks. But I still might cancel my subscription. I have been thinking about doing so anyway, for financial reasons. Now it may become a matter of principle. I can see the letter now: “Dear Mr. Sulzberger, I am cancelling my subscription due to your shameless refusal to hold upper management accountable for their inexcusable negligence in the Jayson Blair debacle.”

Thoughts, anyone?




3 Comments on “Heads must roll”

  1. Joe Loy Says:

    “Thoughts, anyone?” - Well, very seldom; and in this case, not yet. The Just Say Gno to Gnosticism caucus (which thanks you for the plug btw) will suspend judgement until I’ve read the full article, as you urge.

  2. Andrew Says:

    What can I add? You’ve hit the nail on the head, as they say in the blogosphere.

  3. Joe Loy Says:

    OK. I’ve read the whole thing. Including the Apology. I didn’t read all the blurbs on Blair’s stories, just glanced through them; I get the picture.

    By way of Preface: “I am not one to say ‘heads must roll’ at the drop of a hat.” Well I should hope not. I didn’t raise my son to mix his metaphors into so odd a blend of Jacobinism & MadHattery. If you ever run across one who *is* one so to guillotine the accidentally hatless, haul the guy into the head and have Andrew hit his nails for me, would you? ;)

    Now then. Yes, I think you are being pretty harsh toward the editors and other NYT Uppity-ups.

    If they had made no good-faith “tough-love” efforts at remedial action toward Blair’s problems; if they had not, or had hardly, communicated laterally and up the line about them; if they had been blissfully unaware of, or unprofessionally blase about, them — well, that would be different. But, they did all those things.

    Plagued by critical staffing shortages and coverage demands, and impressed by Blair’s real talent and his notable improvement after (very appropriate btw) counselling and closely-monitored disciplinary re-training, they did all those things *imperfectly*; and ultimately, they failed.

    He is wise who sayeth, “Perfection on earth is impossible; human beings are imperfect, and we should not lash out at them for forgivable imperfections, even if those imperfections cause us great anguish.” Wiser still is he who goes on to say that sometimes such imperfection means that Failure *is* an Option — in the loose sense that it *will* sometimes occur. (Granted, we don’t actually Opt for it.)(Well — not usually.)

    It would be nice if, as we like to pretend they are, certain essential human endeavors were exempt from this reality, e.g., space shuttle programs, brain surgery, intelligence work, nuclear weapons security, elections administration, university healthcare, congressional constituent service, journalism, law, that sort of thing. :) But, they’re not.

    To activate our 20-20 hindsight and then shout at the head Heads “Let’s Roll!” when there has been a consequential blurriness of foresight in a field that is (or for that matter, isn’t) important to us — is to reject, if unconsciously, that reality and thus perpetuate, albeit unintentionally, the gnostic myth. Ask not, Was it very bad and Should it have been prevented? Of course it was and of course it should. But rather ask, Considering the totality of the relevant circumstances, was reasonable due diligence exercised to prevent it? And if it *was*, then ask: if the Big Heads Roll anyway, *will* that really operate as an effective “cautionary tale” to Make Sure It Never Happen Again?

    “If a corporation’s earnings plummet, its CEO is fired; if a government agency suffers a major scandal, its secretary is sacked…” Yes, often at least; and when the boss is actually personally remiss as measured by some reasonable performance standard, then rightly so. But when the dismissal is automatic, by the principle of culpability ex-officio, “she should have known” etc. — then I doubt that it is either right, or effective as a practical deterrent to future failures. “Indeed, if an equivalent scandal happened at any government agency — something going straight to the core of the agency’s mission, as this goes straight to the Times’s core mission of reporting the truth — I suspect the Times editorial board would be clamoring for the removal of the agency’s head.” Yes, they would be. And if their clamor were reflexive — if those hypothetical facts were comparable to the real ones they have dissected here — they’d be wrong. For the same reasons that Sulzberger is right (pending further findings in the investigation) in this instance. Certainly the NYT ought not to have a double standard. But rather than condemning themselves with a judgement as Herodian as that which they apply to lesser institutions (i.e., everybody else), they should cut others the same degree of slack as Sulzberger claims for his own.
    ***********************************************
    “…because…I still have a good deal of respect and admiration for the Times, it bothers me. A lot.” Rightly so & me too; but I think it bothers you so badly that you’ve unintentionally exaggerated (**emphases** added): “…The whole communication system within the New York Times newsroom suffered a **complete and utter breakdown.** This is a systematic, **newspaper-wide failure.**…a preventable, **catastrophic disaster**…” Well. I think it’s bad, but not quite THAT bad.

    “Jayson Blair is the perpetrator, yes, but it is **utterly unacceptable** that he was not stopped earlier.” What would you have done? Fired him outright early on, when his problems first surfaced? Forgone the benefit of his obvious talent without trying to cure his serious flaws? Skipped the counselling and “tough-love” corrective efforts, which seemed to bear good fruit for a time and which I’m *guessing may* be called for by his Union contract (a common provision re “progressive discipline”)? Should The New York Times, because it *is* after all The New York Times, not fool around with such fripperies? (Maybe not HAVE pesky Union contracts?)

    “As 9/11 was to the intelligence community, as the Catholic priest sex scandal was to the church hierarchy, so is the Jayson Blair debacle to the New York Times editorial staff.” Perhaps so. I forget the right term for that admirable logical structure. But certainly the 3 events themselves are not equivalent each to the other.

    9/11 is a decent analogy to (sigh) Blairgate as to cause, but not effect. In hindsight, in both cases inadequate communication of existing knowledge among relevant personnel may have caused the failure of foresight. In one instance the result was the publication of many bogus stories in the nation’s premiere newspaper and thus its (temporary, I suggest)loss of credibility, morale, and face. (And of course your subscription.:) In the other instance the effect was the quite permanent murder of 3,000 innocent human beings and, consequently, the overthrow of two (and counting) foreign governments, the placement of the sole superpower on a semi-permanent war footing, the disruption of several international institutions, and generally speaking, the transformation of the world. Now I too have great respect for the NYT. However.

    The Church sex scandal is a bad analogy to NYTimesgate as to cause, effect, extent, and especially culpability. Presumably falsification of news stories is not rampant throughout the Times’ wordwide reportorial bureaus (although, Who knows? Maybe the victims of many *other* phony NYT journalists will now Come Forward via the email hot-line). The worst of the RC scandal is that the Archbishops *deliberately and actively covered it up* for decades, at least, and shunted the numerous offenders from parish to parish while they continued their depradations. That is scarcely comparable to the Editors’ actions toward this lone bad apple Blair, as recounted today.
    ************************************************
    From today’s story: “…Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, questioned how much a newspaper can guard against willful fraud by deceitful reporters. ‘It’s difficult to catch someone who is deliberately trying to deceive you,’ Mr. Rosenstiel said. ‘There are risks if you create a system that is so suspicious of reporters in a newsroom that it can interfere with the relationship of creativity that you need in a newsroom — of the trust between reporters and editors.’”

    That rings true to me. And, when I take my electron magnifying glass to the virtual text in the seeming space between those lines, I think I can (if barely) discern something like, “Therefore, editorial decapitations or no, there will come a time, hopefully not soon, when this will happen (gasp) again.”

    From today’s editorial -

    “The Times regrets that it did not detect the journalistic deceptions sooner. A separate internal inquiry, by the management, will examine the newsroom’s processes for training, assignment and accountability.”

    To me that sounds more promising, as a practical remedy, than the cautionery tale told by the Headsman’s axe. Though of course, the ‘examination of processes’ — and of Blair’s earlier stories — may yet lead some Editors right up the Tower steps to the old Anne Boleyn Solution.

    (”Climbed they up the rugged stair,
    Rang their voices out in prayer…”

    Just had to throw that in, to vindicate Sean’s faith that it always comes back to Ireland. :)


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